My name is Stephan Mathieu, I’m a musician working in the field of electroacousic music since 25 years. I’m currently (09.2015) among the final candidates for the Professorship Sound at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Here are some thoughts on my approach to mastering and sound in general.

Sound Scope
Being fascinated with music and its reproduction since my early childhood, I’ve started playing the drums when I was 10. In 1990 I moved to Berlin where I spent most of the decade as a percussionist and had the chance to work extensively with some of the outstanding players and thinkers from the improvised and contemporary music scenes, with noise, electronic, jazz and experimental rock musicians from around the world. Through countless collaborations, rehearsals and performances on a near daily basis I became well acquainted with how the whole palette of instruments, from ancient to modern, does sound once they play right next to you and how different rooms will affect and alter them eventually. By default, musical instruments have an edge to their more obvious characteristics, and most of them – just like the sound of nature – will refuse to stop sounding at 22kHz just for CD’s sake.

As an active musician and collaborator I’ve also learned about the diverse and often quiet unique perspectives of what good sound should be. The experience gathered during this period became formative for my current work and general approach to sound and mastering.

In 1997 I made a radical shift from being a drummer towards producing music with computers. I soon worked as a teacher in a classic electronic music studio in France and in 2001 became an associate professor for Sound and Digital Concepts at the University of Art and Design of Saarbrücken, where I was invited to conceive and established two dedicated studios. Since the mid 90s I have released over 50 records, CDs and full resolution downloads on international labels as well as on my own Schwebung imprint, and created various site-specific sound installations. During my research for the roots of audio reproduction I started collecting mechanical-acoustic gramophones and records from the early 1900s. I love how they transport sound in an archaic, yet stunningly beautiful way.

Recorded Sound as an Illusion
Once we look at the reproduction of recorded acoustic instruments there’s no such thing as perfect sound. A recording will always be an illusion, a reflection of reality similar to photography or movies. Instead of perfect, such an image can only be as good as it gets once it will be played back. Imagine an orchestral work you love performed in a concert space with amazing acoustics. You can’t get the same result from a pair of loudspeakers, no matter how good they may be. That said, listening to music at home has its very own magic and can without a doubt be a fantastic experience in its own right. A trick almost as old as the record industry itself, to work around the problems that will arise while trying to bring fidelity to people’s homes, is the production of a recording with the use of compression, equalization, delays, reverb etc, paired with a skillful mix of the individual components that make a complex audio event. Needless to say, this problem has sparked a huge wave of creativity and led to an enormous amount of fantastic works spanning across the genres and production schools throughout the decades.

In purely acousmatic music on the other hand, what we hear through a set of loudspeakers sometimes has no real life counterpart at all. The sound aesthetics are solely defined by the composer,  the loudspeaker itself becomes the instrument.  

Shaping Sound
My monitoring setup follows the piece of wire concept so I can hear what is actually there while listening to a client’s work. This means keeping the signal’s path between source (my digital-to-analog converter) and target (my ears) linear and unimpaired by any instance that adds color or character to the material I’m playing back. Same goes for the room I’m working in: it doesn’t sound good, it hardly sounds at all but rather provides a neutral environment to assess the quality of a mix before adding or subtracting color may come into play during the actual mastering process. I love equipment you will not hear but that is built as a measuring tool and offers an uncluttered view on your work instead. This fundamental part of a mastering chain has to offer maximum linearity so the tools will go out of the music’s way.

Taking this as a starting point, I see no difference in working on a recording of a string quartet or a recording of a jackhammer. Each sound has its individual complexity, when handled well it will show its character with precision and cogency. So, the one question I’m asking myself frequently while working on a master is:  Does it sound better, or does it only sound different?  

read: Sound Perspectives